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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Session voters reject $500k cut to School District budget

MERRIMACK – Twelve staff workers could keep their jobs, for several more weeks at least, after voters declined Monday to make a half million dollar cut to the School District budget.

Voters, meeting Monday night for the district’s Deliberative Session, shot down the School Board’s recommendation to subtract $500,000 from the 2011-12 budget, leaving the $65.3 million proposal intact.

The proposed cuts, presented Monday by School Board Chair Jody Vaillancourt, added six paraprofessionals, two school psychologists and a part-time kindergarten teacher, among other positions, to the district chopping block. Already slashed in the approved budget proposal are eight other positions.

School Board members requested the additional cuts last week, responding to Gov. John Lynch’s state budget proposal, which could cost the district upwards of $2 million in state funding.

“We felt this is what we needed to do in light of the message sent to us from Concord,” Vaillancourt told the audience, presenting the amendment.

But voters rejected the cuts, nevertheless, expressing concerns over the quality of the district’s educational services, especially those directed toward special educations students.

“We recognize there might be higher tax bills,” Cindy Thomas, an elementary teacher and former paraprofessional, told the crowd, gathered at the Mastricola Upper Elementary School. “We’re telling you we’re willing to pay the price because the opposite price is services that aren’t being met for our children.”

Speaking in favor of the reductions, School Board members assured the crowd that, with 163 staff assistants remaining in the schools, Merrimack would be able to conserve their special education services, despite the loss of six paraprofessionals. Additionally, some of the money saved from the two psychologist positions would be used to hire outside contractors to do required testing and assessment work, they said.

As its stands, without the additional reductions, the district’s $65.3 million budget would set the school district portion of the local tax rate about $12.64 per $1,000 of assessed value – about 57 cents higher than the current rate.

“Nobody really knows how this is going to play out,” Vaillancourt said. “These are some really large numbers that could impact our School District.”

In addition to the budget, district voters addressed other matters Monday, sending a proposed teachers contract forward to the April elections.

If approved, the two-year pact would provide a 2.75 percent raise each year to the teachers union’s 375 members, and it would reduce the district’s health insurance costs, according to board member Roy Swonger.

Voters also agreed to send forward a proposal for initial funding for a new central office building for the School District.

If voters approve the question next month, School Board members could return next year asking for full funding for the $1.8 million building.

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.